The specter of the bitch has lived on in American politics. Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, found herself dismissed by George H. W. Bush’s press secretary as “too bitchy” for the No. 2 job. The critiques of Ferraro, and of Sarah Palin during the 2008 election cycle, didn’t always summon fears of Lady Macbeth—sometimes the goal just seemed to be to push the ladies back into their rightful place. Remember all the breathless stories about Palin’s figure, and her glasses and wardrobe? Ferraro was asked, at a campaign stop, whether she could bake blueberry muffins. Even some of Mondale’s aides, Ferraro later said, were so condescending to her that she suggested that whenever they looked at her, they should “pretend” that she was “a gray-haired southern gentleman, a senator from Texas.”
The vice presidency is a job of complementary angles; its occupant serves at the pleasure of the person who inhabits the Oval Office. This is in large part why so many of the men in the role have resented it. John Adams, writing to his wife, Abigail, called the vice presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” The editor of The Nation, E. L. Godkin, derided the vice-presidential nomination of Chester A. Arthur, a machine politician trailed by allegations of corruption, on the following grounds: “There is no place in which his powers of mischief will be so small as in the Vice Presidency.” Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s veep, likened the vice president to “a man in a cataleptic fit: He cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; he is perfectly conscious of all that goes on, but has no part in it.”
Here are some dudes, in other words, who have an inkling of what it can feel like to be a woman.
Consider again, then: Even as Kamala Harris sought a job that has been defined by its lack of power, people found ways to complain that she was seeking too much power. Forward movement can feel a lot like whiplash. Harris is the first woman of color to seek the White House on a major-party ticket; that is cause for celebration. But the milestone is also, at this point, cause for indignation: It took this long? Really? Harris, as it happened, accepted her party’s nomination during the week that marked the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification. The coincidence was poignant. It provided an opportunity to contemplate how much has changed, over the long American century, and how much has not. The answer is: A lot. And, still, not enough.
This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “Oh, It Was Nothing.”
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